On the first Saturday in May 2011, Mario Gutierrez watched Animal Kingdom win the Kentucky Derby on TV from the jockeys' room at Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Figuratively speaking, the young Mexican jockey wouldn't have been farther from Churchill Downs if he had been on the moon.
"Like all jockeys, we all dream that one day, fortunately, I would be in the Kentucky Derby," Gutierrez said Saturday. "At that time I was at Hastings Park and, of course, like a joke, I had the dream. I wasn't thinking it would be the next year."
On the first Saturday in May 2012, Gutierrez not only made a Kentucky Derby for the first time, but under horse racing's most glaring spotlight the baby-faced jockey, 25, stole the show.
Turning in a canny, ground-saving ride aboard I'll Have Another, Gutierrez helped the hard-charging stretch runner grind down the pace-setting Bodemeister to win the 138th Kentucky Derby by a length-and-a-half.
After passing beneath the finish line first before a record Derby crowd of 165,307, Gutierrez appeared to have tears in his eyes as he rode I'll Have Another out.
"I don't know what to say," Gutierrez exclaimed.
His performance had already done his talking.
Even though I'll Have Another drew the 19th post in the 20-horse field, Gutierrez managed to break his horse cleanly. He immediately started trying to move the chestnut son of Flower Alley toward the rail.
Amazingly, by the time the Derby field of 20 horses had moved through the first turn, Gutierrez had I'll Have Another only one horse off the rail and forwardly placed in sixth place.
In the Churchill Downs crowd, I'll Have Another trainer Doug O'Neill said he was wondering "is that Mario Gutierrez or Calvin Borel?" in reference to the three-time Derby-winning jockey famous for rail-hugging rides at Churchill Downs.
With Bodemeister ripping off sizzling early fractions, it wasn't immediately apparent, but Gutierrez had already made the move that would win the Kentucky Derby.
By the top of the stretch, Gutierrez and I'll Have Another had Bodemeister square in their sights and soon roared past.
In becoming the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby on their first try since Stewart Elliott (Smarty Jones) in 2004, Gutierrez authored a human version of the kind of out-of-nowhere Cinderella story crafted in recent years by Derby champion horses like Giacomo and Mine That Bird.
Gutierrez grew up on a farm, one of four brothers, in the Mexican state of Veracruz. His father, Mario Gutierrez Sr., raised quarter horses.
"He was training horses. I always wanted to be like my dad," the jockey said. "I asked him to teach me how."
After Gutierrez finished high school, his dad let him go to Hipodromo de las Americas, a racetrack in Mexico City, to try to become a jockey.
In a twist that has the feel of fate, a vacationing Canadian trainer, Terry Jordan, showed up at the track looking for a promising young jockey to take back to Vancouver to develop. A local told him about a jock who was just starting but had promise. In the track kitchen, Jordan asked Gutierrez, through an interpreter, if he'd like to go to Canada to ride horses.
In 2006, Gutierrez won 91 races as an apprentice in Canada. Eventually, he wound up as the first-call rider for Troy Taylor, the leading trainer at Hastings for five straight years. Eventually, Taylor and Gutierrez started dipping their toes in California racing.
Taylor decided he would go back to Canada but told his promising young jockey to stay in Cali. Gutierrez fought homesickness for Vancouver, but stuck it out. Earlier this year, a horse owner, J. Paul Reddam, saw Gutierrez win a race at Santa Anita.
"He really looked good in the irons to me," Reddam said. "I (told my trainer), 'We need to try some new blood.' "
That is how Gutierrez came to be in the saddle of Reddam's top horse, I'll Have Another, at Churchill Downs.
"There was some karma today because it was Cinco de Mayo," Reddam said, "and we rode the Mexican rider."
So Gutierrez ended the first Saturday in May 2012 with a beaming smile, signing autographs on Kentucky Derby glasses, and having a Kentucky State Trooper guide him through post-Derby well-wishers.
It was a very long way from watching TV in the jockeys' room at Hastings Park.
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com